Education, or more appropriately, the denial of access to education, was the bedrock of enslavement and segregation in America. Keeping Blacks (slave and free) ignorant and uneducated provided slaveholders justification for enslavement, subordination, and the denial to them of rights, privileges and opportunities afforded Whites. It was no coincidence, therefore, that, early in their struggles, Blacks realized the critical importance of education, and it assumed preeminence in their liberation thoughts and strategies. Thus, gaining knowledge became, for leading Blacks, a countervailing repertoire of resistance; the antidote for overcoming subordination and impoverishment; and ultimately achieving true freedom and equality. The pursuit of knowledge became the lifeline to freedom and equality; an existential goal.
The linkage of education to freedom and equality prompted many to engage seemingly insurmountable obstacles in the quest for knowledge. In his epic autobiography, F redrick Douglass captured a poignant moment of existential epiphany: the sudden revelation of the dialectics of education and freedom. Douglass was a slave who escaped, and subsequently published, among many other works, a Narrative (1842) of his life. He recalled, with dramatic effects, the moment his master Thomas Auld berated his wife for teaching Douglass the alphabet. Within earshot of Douglass, Auld pleaded with his wife to terminate the lesson on the ground that it was both "unlawful and unsafe" to teach slaves to read (Blight, 2003, p. 63).
Auld informed his wife that, learning would spoil the best nigger in the world.. .if you teach that nigger how to read, there would be no keeping him. It would forever unfit him to be a slave. He would at once become unmanageable, and of no value to his master...It would make him discontent and unhappy. (Ibid)
According to Douglass, Auld's words
sank deep into my heart, stirred sentiments within that lay slumbering, and called into existence an entire new train of thoughts.. now understood what had been to me a most perplexing difficulty--to wit, the White man's power to enslave the Black man. It was a great achievement, and I prized it highly. (Ibid, p. 64)
Douglass would not soon forget this moment. He now, "understood the pathway from slavery to freedom" (Ibid). Though Mrs. Auld, in deference to her husband, terminated the lessons and became mean-spirited, once ignited, Douglass' desire for knowledge would not be extinguished. He would go on to self-educate, and Thomas Auld's words proved prophetic. The attainment of literacy fired Douglass's desire for freedom. Subsequently, he escaped. Such revelation, however, was not a uniquely Douglassean experience. It was an experience shared by many of Douglass's contemporaries.
Thus, the quest for education became a burning desire among Blacks, free and slave, and it would dominate the debate within the leadership of the evolving free Black community in the early nineteenth century. The question "Why Education?" became a recurrent theme in Black liberation thought. Along with the "Why?" there was also the "Which?" Which form of education would best guarantee the desired freedom and meaningful equality? On this question, the free Black leadership was divided into two opposing viewpoints: those in favor of classical education, also referred to as collegiate or education of the mind; against advocates of industrial education, also referred to as practical, normal or education of the hand. Prominent disputants included William E. B. Du Bois, who was identified with the classical education camp. A Harvard trained historian, Du Bois was an activist, first through the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), of which he was a founding member, and later in the Pan-African movement. Booker T. Washington towered above everyone in opposition to Du Bois on the subject of education. A graduate of Hampton Institute, and a staunch advocate of practical education, Washington would go on to help establish a trade school that would train generations of Blacks: the Tuskegee Institute.
Though the question "Which Education?" shaped the debates and discussions for much of Black American history, modern discourses betray deep-seated and enduring distrust of the core values and philosophy of American education. Among leading Blacks, there persists a historically rooted vision of America as still very much driven by racist core values that continue to nurture an educational environment and culture inimical to Black progress (Gresson, 2008; Shujaa, 1995; Woodson, 1935/2000). In other words, six decades after the epochal Brown v. Board of Education (1954) decision, which overturned discrimination and segregation in education, Blacks had yet to fully overcome historical misgivings about American education. Hence, the demand by some for a separate education space and paradigm; racially configured, infused with, and driven by, values derived from the African heritage: Afrocentric education. Proponents deemed this the ideal epistemological foundation for Black elevation and empowerment (Asante, 1980/87, 1991; Keto, 1995).
Unfortunately, this article will not address contemporary debates on the state of Black education in America. Several scholarly studies have researched this subject (Aldridge, 1999, 2003; Banks, 2002; Gresson, 2008; Ogbu, 2002; Shujaa, 1995; Watkins, 2005; Watkins, Lewis, & Chou, 2001; Young & Braziel, 2003). Rather, it is an historical reconstruction and analysis of the educational thoughts and philosophy of the one individual who seemed to have anticipated, and theorized about, much of the themes and values that would dominate discourses on education among Black Americans: Martin R. Delany (1812-1885). Curiously, he is barely acknowledged in the historiography of African-American education (Anderson, 1988; Bullock, 1967; Butchart, 1980). Admittedly, Delany was not a professional educator. Notwithstanding, in his writings and speeches, Delany highlighted education as a critical foundational institution for achieving meaningful freedom and equality in America. His contributions to the philosophy of education addressed both the 'Why?" and the "Which?" dimensions of education. His answers would resurface in the ideas and philosophies of future generations of American educators.
Delany was born a "free Black" in Charlestown, Virginia (now in West Virginia), at a time when it was against the law to educate Blacks. Like other slave states, Virginia proscribed the education of slaves. This policy became even more stringent in the aftermath of the bloody Nat Turner revolt of 1830 in Southampton County. The Virginia General Assembly passed more restrictive laws criminalizing teaching slaves and free Blacks to read and write (Aptheker, 1983; Brophy, 2013). Thus, Delany soon discovered that in Jeffersonian Virginia only White kids were allowed through the classroom doors. This realization occurred when he accompanied his White playmates to school and was refused entry (Sterling, 1971). Delany's opportunity came when his parents acquired a copy of the New York Primer and Spelling Book from an itinerant peddler. The family kept the treasured acquisition a secret and held nocturnal study sessions. Soon, every member had attained literacy. Word spread that the Delanys had broken the law and prosecution seemed imminent. The family escaped to Chambersburg, Pennsylvania, in September of 1822. They quickly discovered that Chambersburg was little better than Charlestown. Despite a more permissive environment, racism persisted there. Notwithstanding, Delany was able to continue his elementary education in the public school system, where he encountered values that were meant to imbue acceptance of the prevailing perception of Blacks as inferior, and of Africa as a continent of barbarism. The persistence of derogatory images of Africa only bolstered Delany's determination to seek the truth (Rollin, 1868; Sterling, 1971).
At the completion of his elementary education in Chambersburg, and with no opportunities for further education, Delany moved to Pittsburgh in July of 1831. There, he encountered a thriving, energetic, and equally determined community of free Blacks, mostly migrants like himself, all of whom thirsted for knowledge. Delany enrolled in the Cellar School of the African Methodist Episcopal Church, where he took classes in the Arts and Humanities. History was his favorite subject, which he considered fundamental to enlightenment and mental emancipation. Delany made tremendous progress at the Cellar School and was promptly promoted to advanced levels. He supplemented his schoolwork with private study and discussions with his roommate, one Mollison Clark. The two frequently discussed and debated diverse issues. To encourage similar activities among other Blacks, they founded the Theban Literacy and Debating Society (Hutton, 1930; Rollin, 1868; Ullman, 1971).
After attaining the equivalence of a high school education, Delany turned his attention to choosing a profession. He noticed a troubling "slavish" disposition among free Blacks: the tendency to gravitate toward menial and servile occupations. He deplored this development, and insisted that Blacks needed to aspire for higher occupations through higher education. Delany lamented what he characterized as "the menial position of our people in this country," and their "seeming satisfaction" with seeking after menial positions to a degree "unknown to any other people." According to him:
There appears to be, a want of a sense of propriety or self-respect, altogether inexplicable; because young men and women among us, many of whom have good trades, and homes, adequate to their support, voluntarily leave them, and seek positions, such as servants, washing maids, coachmen, nurses, cooks.. .when they can gain a livelihood at something more...
'Much learning makes men mad': classical education and black empowerment in Martin R. Delany's philosophy of education.
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